Larry Letters

Home, Family and a Homemade Cannon

by Published On: Sep 25, 2012

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the 100th anniversaries of 2 members of LeadingAge:

Jack Broaddus was a great host at the Sunnyside gala, which included a must-watch video that we’ll post. Kris Hansen was my Iowa host, and I had a full day with him, his staff, the residents, and the board.

Both organizations were created by religious leaders who felt an obligation to serve a dozen elderly women of their faith who had no place to live.

A memorable experience was a meeting that lasted a couple of hours with the Western Home Communities management staff. About 40 of them. We went around the room for introductions.

Kris asked each of them for their name, their title and how long they'd worked for Western Home Communities (by the way, formerly called the "Western Old People's Home," which is still etched in stone above the original, but now renovated, headquarters).

Home and Family

As they introduced themselves, I also asked the staffmembers why they stay. The longevity ranged from 6 months to 38 years. The pervasive theme was "home and family:"

Judy, 37 years, said, "This is home.''

Ann said, "It's everything!"

Linda said that on her first day on the job, her mother had a heart attack. No question that her Weston Home colleagues supported her attention to her mom.

Peggy of 38 years said that she's responsible for the “cats and birds” part of "family." Not sure how that became her duty, but maybe every member should have a director of cats and birds!

Deb, an 18-year veteran who leads the Western Home Communities Sure Care outreach program, summarized it well: ''Everybody is family."

Sheri the controller said "there's lots of action." From a controller? Go Figure (must not get out much!).

Further reflections include people like Sue, the director of nursing, who said, "It’s OK that I pray with residents.''

Kim said that what happens every day at Western Home Communities "touches her heart."

Beth, a social worker, and Diana, an R.N., sat together and said the place had "fun" as a focus (perhaps a dangerous duo that shouldn't be allowed to site together!).

Cindy from marketing had left and returned. "I'm back here because the priorities are right," she exclaimed.

Ericka said, "My friends don't like me because when they complain about their jobs, I always talk about how much I love mine."

Kathleen, a nationally acclaimed dietitian (not responsible for the bagels, cream cheese, and pastries we ate), said, "We view God first, family second, and community third."

Kelly, the chief financial officer (CFO), likes the organization because of its "controlled growth" -- Huh?! CFOs can be weird, but somebody has to keep things "controlled,'' I suppose.

A Homemade Cannon

But the star of Western Home Communities was clearly Terry, the -- you guessed it -- maintenance man. You could pick him out of a lineup. A portly, round, red, and cherubic-faced fellow with a big moustache.

Terry sat on his throne around the table as 15 or more of the staff paid homage -- all needing something done in their departments. The mostly female staff fawned over him as if to set him up for the maintenance request to follow.

He knew what was coming.

Terry made his own cannon, which he shot off on special occasions that involve barbecue and a couple of beers. While Terry may sound a little scary, when you meet him it’s obvious he’s a loveable and essential soul to the Western Home "family."

When I asked Terry why he has stayed 30-plus years, he said, "I stay here because of all the people in this room. They've enriched my life. And, nobody ever gets chewed out for spending time with residents."

And, if you think culture isn't created from the top of an organization, a major topic on the board's agenda was to make sure the direct care workers were competitively compensated, even in a tough economic climate. The board, Kris, Jerry the COO -- all care about the staff.

Or, as Mark the chaplain put it, the primary value here is "compassion," and "we're all involved in an honorable call to ministry."

There have been a lot of important discussions in long-term care about culture change. This is what it sounds like from the inside out, from the top down.

Ask your employees why they stay. We'll honor dozens like them in Denver -- one who has served 63 years.

And one more piece of advice: ALWAYS pay homage to the maintenance man -- especially if he has made his own cannon.


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